It says much about the health of our democracy that such a thing should come to pass. That two men holding radically divergent views were able to meet and drink coffee together without descending into loud and rancorous disagreement. That one of those men was Sir Roger Douglas says even more.
To say I was surprised that the architect of the economic changes which transformed New Zealand between 1984 and 1990 wanted to meet with me would be to understate the case considerably. For most of my adult life I have, one way or another, fought and criticised what came to be called “Rogernomics”. Not just privately, down at the pub with my lefty mates, but publicly, in print and on the airwaves. I even helped to form, and stood as a candidate for, NewLabour – the political party whose whole raison d’être was to roll Rogernomics back. And yet, here was Sir Roger Douglas on the other end of the line, inviting me to assess his latest ideas for improving New Zealand – kanohi ki te kanohi – over coffee.
I think it says a lot about New Zealand, and about both men, that two people with such radically different views can talk political ideas over coffee.
That ideas still matter to this spry 81-year-old was obvious from the moment we settled into a quiet corner of the Orvieto Café on Auckland’s Mt Eden Road. He had brought with him an impressive stack of papers – each containing page-after-page of carefully calculated figures. And the way he argued from those figures swept me back more than 30 years to the “Great Economic Debate” initiated by Labour Party president, Margaret Wilson. That debate had become an urgent necessity as it began to dawn on Labour’s membership that the government of David Lange and his frenetic Finance Minister was going to be remembered for something more than declaring New Zealand nuclear-free.
This is how I described Sir Roger’s defence of his new Goods & Services Tax at the Otago-Southland regional conference of the Labour Party in April 1985:
“Douglas is messianic. He scrawls figures on the blackboard with violent energy, barking out his arguments like a Parade Sergeant. There is an aura of absolute conviction about the man that is taking its toll on the waverers. Will they hold?”
Well, we all know the answer to that question. Labour’s GST is internationally famous for being the only value-added tax that left the government responsible for its introduction as – if not more – popular after its implementation than before.
Sir Roger’s clean GST is one of his best legacies.
It is precisely in this area that the present government is so woefully deficient. Neither in Labour’s ranks, nor NZ First’s, nor the Greens, is there a “policy aggressor” remotely equal to Sir Roger. Jacinda Ardern is every bit as effective as David Lange at conveying emotion – better even. But, just ask Jacinda to set forth a compelling case for “transformational” change in any of the policy areas dear to her heart: child poverty; affordable housing; climate change; and she is reduced to ums and ahs and buzzwords. It’s embarrassing.
Harsh but true.